Hume Street is also known as “Koon Choy Kai” in Cantonese, meaning “Coffin Street”. Do you know why?
Phun Yue Wui Kun 潘禺会馆 , the tall building at the far right, is one of the busiest funeral parlors along Hume Street. It caters to those who died away from home and also one who died young and unmarried. It is “fully occupied” the whole year. Sometimes two families even “shared” the premise at the same time. So, can you imagine how many people died in a single day?
Above this funeral parlor is a convalescent home, which is a dreadful place to stay. It is a place for the aged and sick to wait for the Grim Reaper. Many families send their old and sick relatives here to live out their last days after which the deceased is carried down stairs for the last rites.
It is very expensive for a Chinese “to die”. Unlike other cultures, this “once in a life time” event called for spending on many expensive items which are “unavoidable”.
On the extreme right are some casket shops. The owners of these casket shops are very aggressive and competitive. With a walkie-talkie in hand in those days, and a mobile phone in modern times, they waited at hospital mortuaries, clamoring for business when they spotted a bereaved family. Some even “combed” the ICU wards to search for potential customers! Each will try to offer their best “deal” or “package”.
Most of them doubled up as priests or “nam moh lou” who will conduct wakes and funerals. It is a skill that took many years to master and is usually handed down from one generation to the next. In those days, a “nam moh lou” is usually a middle aged man but now you can find young and handsome guys, their sons, perhaps. Ever heard of overseas university graduates with degrees in accounting or business management coming back home to take over their father’s trade as “nam moh lou”? I have. It is that lucrative!
Do you know how a casket is chosen? According to the casket shop owner whom my family knew, when somebody dies, the “nam moh lou” together with the kin, will light up a joss stick, chant some prayers and “lead” the dead soul to the casket shop where they will wait for a signal, normally a faint knocking sound coming from the casket which the deceased “fancies”! Throwing 2 small pieces of wood on the floor will confirmed the choice.
In those days, the casket was made in the traditional style, a long rectangular box with 3 humps. It was big and heavy, normally made from teak or pine wood. It is very frightening just to look at them. But today, they are very modern and westernized. Just a rectangular box with gold flower handles and came with a small glass window where one can see the deceased’s face as he or she laid inside. A casket is normally expensive, costing several thousand dollars each.
A bereaved family will always try to indulge on the deceased. A suit made from expensive silk cloth with dragon and flowers motifs were usually bought to dress the deceased. They came in silver, gold or blue color. A cap and a pair of sandals of similar material and color were normally chosen to complete the look for a “grand exit.” The richer and older the deceased, the grander his or her suit will be.
The casket shops also offer to bathe and dress the corpse for a fee. Another spin off trade is to provide “make up” for female corpse. Arch eyebrows, blue eye shadow, pink cheeks, red lipsticks and hair neatly combed into place. Yes, all women like to look beautiful, even in death! After the bathing and make up session was done, a special ancient Chinese coin is placed between the lips of the deceased for him or her to bribe the guards in the hereafter! Yes, they even practice corruption in hell!!
An umbrella made from oiled paper in light brown color is purchased from these shops. It is opened up and placed on top of the coffin to provide “shelter” for the deceased on the way to the hereafter.
For those who chose cremation, rows of marble and porcelain urns were available in these shops to choose from. They came in white for marble while the porcelain ones are normally in maroon, green or yellow. There were intricate designs of dragons, unicorns and flowers on the urns and Chinese characters “sau 寿” meaning “longevity” were crafted on them. For those who chooses burial, they will have to buy a plot of land and it is even more expensive, especially those with good “feng-shui 风水”. Expect to pay between RM50,000 to RM80,000 especially in memorial parks with beautiful landscapes. Normally the owners of these casket shops will act as middle man between the family and the developer of these memorial parks.
These shops also sell mourning clothes. Normally black clothes, sack vests, white hoods over the heads and white waist bands were reserved for the children and daughters –in laws to show that they are the closest and grieved the most. It is blue clothes and white waist band for grandchildren and great grandchildren. The son-in laws wears light color clothes and white waist bands because they are considered “outsiders” since they have no blood relation and did not shared the family surname with the deceased.
There were a few shops specializing in making paper offerings for the deceased. Among the things a dead person needed in the afterlife was a big double storey mansion completed with a pair of male and female servants, a big limousine with a driver and of course everyday items like TV set, fan, mahjong table and chairs, suitcase with clothes, shoes, accessories like watch and jewelries and not forgetting hell bank notes, lots of them! They said if one cannot have luxury on earth, at least one can after death.
In those days, a lorry is often used as a hearse. A large portrait of the deceased is put in front of the vehicle at the center and surrounded by a flower garland. Nowadays, modern vehicles like MPV were used. Two white lanterns with the deceased’s surname and age written were hang on each side of the hearse, ready for the last journey on earth. And in this case, that journey starts from Hume Street!
Don’t you agree it is a rather long and expensive shopping list, one that will surely burn a hole in the pocket?
Final part ~ One journey has ended. Another is about to begin…… 今世毕. 来世始…
Part 1 ~ Unfolding a Panorama Called Hume Street….伸展“谦街”的一幕